Transcendent Genius: NM Museum of Art exhibition shines a light on Agnes Pelton

“Awakening (Memory of the Father)” by Agnes Pelton. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Art)

Agnes Pelton doesn’t brag about the instant recognition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s name.

A traveling exhibit by a woman from the Phoenix Art Museum argues that maybe she should.

“Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist” opens at the New Mexico Art Museum on Friday, October 4. The exhibition runs until January 5. This is the first study of the artist’s work in over 23 years.

Long neglected and underestimated, Pelton was a revolutionary artist who inspired the New Mexico-based Transcendental Painting Group. Like O’Keeffe, she studied with influential professor Arthur Wesley Dow at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Pelton arrived in New Mexico through Taos Lounge hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan 10 years earlier than O’Keeffe. Intrigued by Pelton’s use of spirituality in her art, Transcendental Group co-founder Raymond Jonson wrote her letters begging her to join his movement in the 1930s, ultimately appointing her honorary president.

But Pelton was more than a transcendentalist.

The artist’s most essential work blends representationalism and abstraction, said Gilbert Vicario, deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Phoenix Art Museum.

“The Ray Serene”, 1925, by Agnes Pelton. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Art)

The exhibit merged when Vicario began researching the museum’s collection.

“I was like, ‘This is amazing,’” he said in a telephone interview. “I thought, ‘It’s too good to be true.’ This led me to his last major exhibition, in 1995.

Among the more than 40 works on display is “Awakening (Memory of My Father)”, 1943.

The dreamlike image features a profile under a lit trumpet bell floating in a starry sky.

Pelton’s father died of a morphine overdose when she was 9 years old.

“He was passionate about hiking and mountaineering,” said Vicario. “He battled depression with morphine. “

The trumpet was supposed to wake up the dead, he said.

“Orbits”, 1934, by Agnes Pelton. (Courtesy of Gallery Of California Art, Oakland Museum of California)

Pelton was born and raised in Germany. In 1888, the family moved to Europe after a notorious Golden Age scandal involving his grandmother, who was having an affair with a famous Brooklyn preacher. The story spread in the New York Times in sensational ink.

Pelton was raised never to talk about it; society avoided her mother. Pelton grew up withdrawn, uncertain and painfully shy. His spirit and his paintings forged his escape.

Having no connection to the art world‘s elite, Pelton was relatively unknown, although she was compared to O’Keeffe for her landscape work. In 1932, she moved to Cathedral City, California, immersing herself in spiritual practices such as Theosophy, Numerology, and Agni Yoga, with an emphasis on fire as the guiding force.

“Ray Serene”, 1925, is one of his first pure abstractions.

“She’s starting to focus on the light, and there’s a lot of energy and desire,” Vicario said.

Pelton’s subjects balance conceptual forms with objects haloed from invisible sources. Energy and vibrations flourish around the astral and physical bodies of the desert.

“The work is very special,” said Vicario. “It’s very different from everything. She didn’t exhibit much in New York. We always refer to O’Keeffe; O’Keeffe had (gallerist and impresario) Alfred Stieglitz ”to market it.

The rampant sexism of the art world has done little to expand Pelton’s reputation.

“Mother of Silence”, 1933, by Agnes Pelton. (Courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Art)

Pelton died in 1961, never having married and leaving no heirs. Many of his works have been lost or destroyed. Vicario discovered a letter written by a warden saying that Pelton’s cousins ​​found a painting at a sale of white elephants at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art with a price tag of $ 40. When she came back with the money, the price had been reduced to $ 15. Last year Vicario learned of the existence of a Pelton for sale in New Jersey valued at $ 400 to $ 600.

He hopes the exhibition will change that. His next stop is the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

“The Whitney takes 1,200 copies of the catalog,” Vicario said. “When we travel to shows, we are lucky if we sell 50.”


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Reggie S. Williams

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